How Many Words Does It Take To Write A Book?

IMG_6794The Words that Formed The Wardrobe Girl

 

Word count. Writers are addicted to their word count. That little self-help tool that ticks over in the tool bar of your document pushing you towards that much sought after sign off – The End.

But when is enough, enough and how will you know?

There are no easy answers to those questions (sorry if I was holding out false hope there). There are lots of ifs, buts, maybes and how long is a piece of string kind of responses. Sometimes it’s dependent on genre, so if you’re writing a picture book, 400 crisply chosen, precise words maybe all you need, but a Scifi or Fantasy epic may need 120,000 words to paint the world and tell the story.

My book, The Wardrobe Girl, is just 94,000 words, but I’d say I probably wrote at least 200,00 to achieve the 94,000 words that made it into the published copy. My first draft came in at 105,000 words, but there were many rewrites and scrunched up sheets of paper on the way. Most of those words were handwritten (I’m an old-fashioned pencil/pen and paper girl) before they made it onto a word document. Although, I have allowed myself some artistic license there – I never scrunch up my sheets of paper and I’ve never had an overflowing waste paper basket, the Hollywood shorthand for writer at work, trying to breakthrough writer’s block. Oh no, we have blogs for that these days!

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My words are kept, usually between the covers of a Moleskine. I carry a notepad with me ready to write down any conversational gems I overhear or to take note of someone’s outfit, or idiosyncracy. The journals are my starting point for the writing, although, for some reason book 2 is currently being written on a blank foolscap pad – I’m not sure if this working for me, I’ll let you know. Sometimes my words are retrieved or used elsewhere. It might just be a phrase I’ve highlighted or a whole paragraph. Sometimes a whole scene has been resurrected. I know there’s all kinds of software that does it for you, but 1, I’d have to learn how to use it and 2, I like to have physical access to them.

But, how did I know when enough was enough?

I didn’t really. I reached a point where I knew it still needed work, but wasn’t sure how to quite go about it. With the encouragement of a friend, the wonderful writer A.D. Scott, I submitted my manuscript to her agent, and now mine, Sheila Drummond. The word count was sitting at about 96,500 at this stage, but I couldn’t see where to lose those 6,500 words to hit the magical 90,000 word mark for my genre – contemporary women’s fiction (aka – chick lit). Sheila reassured me that when a publisher got hold of it I would have all the guidance I needed.

And she was right.

Although the rewriting isn’t necessarily any easier during the editing process, at least you have some guidance and all those tracking changes down the side. You know where to cut, massage and completely rewrite. But without any words, you can’t do any of those things.

So how many words? As many as it takes. Listen to your intuition, because those gut instincts are you usually right. Don’t be scared to write it big and write it ugly, those words can be refined. In the end, the answer always comes down to the same thing. Write. Put one word down after another and you will form a sentence and the sentences will eventually a become your book.

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Revising The Revisions: Learning How To Edit.

Novellist, Toni Jordan* describes writers as ‘Knitters or Quilters.’ There are the writers, like me who ‘cast on’ their story at Chapter 1 and then knit/write their way to the end, ‘casting off’ only when they have finished the last chapter. Conversely, the ‘quilters’, write/quilt pieces and then sew/write the pieces to form blocks and then piece together again to form a whole. The editing process is mostly a quilting process.

I quite like a bit of nanna technology and can often have a couple of knitting or quilting projects on the go, so this analogy made perfect sense to me. I realised, that for me, the art of editing was going be learning how to quilt as a writer. How to move pieces/passages around the manuscript, creating new pieces and then pulling it all together.

But let’s go back a step. My publisher, Beverley Cousins at Random House, sent me through some very comprehensive notes about the manuscript – some general observations, detailed notes on particular scenes and points that needed clarification. She had also picked up typos, spelling and punctuation errors. This was all on a hard copy of the manuscript, marked up line by line, with an explanation of the squiggles she uses as shorthand.

For the next 6 weeks or so, these documents were my Bible.

I had a road map to follow and follow I did. Although I didn’t take on every suggestion, because there were some things I felt needed to stay. Now I could finally look at my work with fresh eyes. After the long process of writing, then rewriting and revising before I even submitted the manuscript, I’d reached a point where I’d fallen out of love with writing, my writing, my manuscript.  I was re-energised. Yes, I was worried I might ruin the whole story, destroy all that work, but understand this: there is no rational basis for the terror that may descend at this point. all you can do is write through it. I know, it’s not fair.

Some pages look like this.

Some pages look like this.

Other pages look more like this.

Other pages look more like this.

The revisions bring tough decisions. Some ‘darlings’ are killed off. Lines you’d waited for, hunted for, scrawled out, rewritten and fought for, are sent to the editing room floor. Characters must earn their place in the story and if they don’t, so long. Other characters begin to play a role you never anticipated for them, or become more sympathetic. It’s hard to change your characters, even their names (one of my supporting cast had his name changed 3 times). I love all my characters, even the ones I disliked. They all talked to me and gave me ideas, when I was quiet enough to listen.

Of course, some of the revision was ‘mechanical’. Correcting typos, punctuation, etc and that’s where I chose to start. I could do this straight onto the computer and it didn’t require a great deal of creative thought, but it did put me back in touch with the story. It allowed ideas to form and percolate.

Eventually, you have to do the writing! I wish there was a secret formula for that, but I’m still searching. And perhaps this is another example of my love of nanna technology, now I reach for my pen and paper, or my Moleskine books.  I head off to The State Library of NSW and I write.

Writing - Stage 1 the nanna technology

Writing – Stage 1 the nanna technology

And then I rewrite the revisions. But there’s more. The next step is entering it into the computer and there’s always some tweaking and tinkering done there. That’s printed off, and a final edit with pen and paper is done.

Eventually, I make it this far.

Eventually, I make it this far.

It’s not a quick process, but as Michael Crichton** says, ‘Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten’.

There is one final step, the most terrifying. You email your revisions back to your publisher and wait…

Actually, I’m wrong. The most terrifying moment is opening the return email from your publisher. Fortunately, Bev loved my revisions. Now my manuscript is off to the copy-editor. I’ll let you know how that goes.

*Toni Jordan is an Australian author of intelligent, funny, novels that some might call chick-lit. Click here for her Official Website

**Michael Crichton was a best-selling author extaordinaire, Jurassic Park is just one of his many books and creator of one my all time favourite TV shows, ERClick here for his official Website.